Class Struggle on Park Avenue

Ann recently overheard her daughters playing “Barbies” and was shocked. Ken wasn’t encouraging Barbie to engage in inappropriate physical contact. It was even worse than that – especially for someone like Ann, who was raised during the sixties on the quaint and hopelessly outdated notion, at least if you live in Manhattan, that there are more important things in life than money.

“They named the dad Moonves, after the president of CBS,” she recalls. “And they made him an investment banker. When I was their age, I’d never even heard of investment bankers.”

Her children’s choice of role models shouldn’t come as a surprise. Half of the dads at their school seem to be investment bankers, and their kids are the ones flying off to the Caribbean for the weekend and throwing the best birthday parties. What’s especially poignant and perhaps a little depressing to Ann is the realization of how far her own fortunes have tumbled relative to those of many of the people with whom she socializes.

When she was growing up, Ann, who’s a psychologist, made the trip from her parents’ Fifth Avenue triplex to school in a chauffeur-driven station wagon, but only because she was too embarrassed to be seen in the family Rolls. Today, her daughters attend the same tony private girls’ school, but just about everything else in their life has changed, and not for the better.

Ann’s parents divorced, and when her father died, he left his estate not to Ann’s mother but to his next wife. The triplex, a magnificent apartment with terraces and gardens, is gone – sold for a song during the seventies – and Ann; her husband David, a teacher; and their children now live in a warren of small rooms in a rented Carnegie Hill walk-up.

“Little did I know when my parents sold their triplex it would be the last time I’d set foot in one,” says Ann, whose sense of irony may be her saving grace as the walls literally close in around her. (To give the girls their own rooms, the family divided what were small rooms into even tinier ones.) “I literally don’t own anything.”

She’s even given herself and her friends in similarly straightened circumstances an acronym – DUMPIES. “It means downwardly and unhappily mobile professionals,” she explains over lunch at Demarchelier on a recent afternoon. “Notice young is no longer in it, either.”

The world doesn’t feel sorry for Ann, nor should it. The family’s combined annual income is “way over” $100,000, according to David. Their children enjoy the best education money can buy. They have a weekend house in the Hamptons, albeit not on the beach like most of their children’s friends do. And they spent spring break in the Bahamas.

But relative to almost everyone else they know, relative to the freshly minted multimillionaires and billionaires Ann rubs shoulders with at school functions, she feels impoverished.

“It sounds almost comical to be in the upper 2 percent of earners in the nation and to find it’s difficult to live in Manhattan,” says David, who ticks off $200,000 a year in “fixed” expenses – including $60,000 for rent, $60,000 for tuitions, and $15,000 for a baby-sitter. “You can’t save money, and you go into debt. We know some people who are really quite bitter about it.”

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so galling if everybody else around you didn’t seem to be doing quite so well. “I feel like I’ve put her in a world where we don’t fit, and yet I don’t know where else to put her,” laments Ann, referring to her seventh-grader. “One kid wears a $3,000 watch to gym and gives kids $200 birthday presents. The wealthy parents have followed suit. Even though I grew up in this world, I no longer belong here.”

With the stock market rocketing toward Mars and the real-estate market panting to keep up (“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a $7 million or $700,000 apartment. Everybody feels poor in this market,” says Kirk Henckels, a broker with Stribling & Associates. “One reason to feel really poor is to be the broker who sees these financials”), the middle class has been cleansed from large parts of Manhattan, the well-to-do are feeling insecure, and those with “real money” – $100 million seems to be the generally accepted cut-off – rule with what people in Ann’s unfortunate situation consider a telling lack of taste.

“When I went to school, I would have rather died before I showed up in a limo,” she says, stressing that she made her chauffeur wait around the corner, when she let him pick her up at all. “Now it’s the opposite.”

She’s referring to the armada of chauffeur-driven Town Cars – the obligatory accessory of the rich trying to juggle the competing demands of parenthood and wealth management – that roll up to her daughters’ school each morning, dispensing sneakered heiresses at the front door without any hint of mortification.

A well-meaning speech Ann’s daughters’ head of school gave a couple of years ago still stings. “She said, ‘It’s important you not let your household help pick up after your kids all the time,’ ” the psychologist remembers. “The assumption was that everybody there had household help – and they did. The irony was that she could talk to an entire parent body without a trace of irony in this matter.”

The growing chasm between the really rich and everyone else may be felt most keenly not by the truly poor but by the well-to-do, particularly those who grew up here and who cling to the childish notion that the city should remain theirs.

“I might not be able to continue to live in my home town,” says a 40-year-old book publisher who lives with his wife and small daughter among fellow indigent liberal-arts majors – artists, writers, musicians, opera singers – in a stolid prewar apartment with limited light near Columbia University.

“I don’t have any more right than anybody else, but it’s my own home,” he continues, sounding contrite. “If you grew up in Manhattan, it’s just like growing up any other place. Home is a very primal thing.”

Perhaps most damaging of all to the self-esteem of people of his provenance is the realization that new money – who in former days relished the opportunity to mingle with impoverished old money – no longer seems to attach much importance to pedigree or refinement. To paraphrase one embittered English major: Since these people don’t have a single book in the house, why should they respect those who are well-read?

“You look to your left and you look to your right, and everybody is richer than you are,” observes a newspaper columnist who used to think she was doing well. “You say, ‘We have a larger apartment,’ and then you realize they have an estate in Bedford where they go on weekends.

“They’re probably spending the same amount as you on telephone and electricity. The difference is in discretionary income. If someone has $100,000 more than you, that buys a lot of trips to Europe. But they don’t have $100,000 more than you; they have $100 million more than you.

“You walk into ABC Carpet, and some little thing that doesn’t even have a name costs $45,” she goes on. “You can spend thousands of dollars outfitting your bed. You go in there and think, I can buy a nice pair of sheets, and you realize you’re $2,400 short.

“And you go into other people’s homes and they have twenty extra pillows, and you feel really depressed. I have a friend who said to me, ‘I’ve already done three Ralph beds.’ I’m thinking, ‘I have so much catch-up here.’ “

Paul Spector, a psychiatrist, says that in the last couple of years he’s seen increasing numbers of patients complaining of amorphous aches and pains, feeling older than their chronological age, and faltering sexual potency.

“Somebody can feel quite good about themselves, and all of a sudden what’s become their marker of success has changed,” he observes, referring to those new young e-millionaires. It’s something like the queasy feeling you get reading the annual giving report from your child’s school and spotting the name of someone you dismissed as ordinary perched atop the $1 million-plus category while you’re lost in the $250-to-$500 group. “There’s not necessarily a decrease in lifestyle,” says Spector. “There’s a decrease in where they are in the hierarchy.”

“There’s a couple of parents who don’t speak to me because we don’t have enough money,” Ann says flatly. Most of her good friends are people like David and her – they went to the best prep schools and colleges and managed to preserve their self-esteem, at least until recently, with the help of family money. “The sophisticated rich recognize people who are interesting. But the people who are just rich have no interest in us.”

Those jerks are easy enough to identify and snub before they snub you. It’s the very rich without blatant spiritual flaws, those who manage their wealth with understated grace and whose kids somehow remain unspoiled even though they haven’t flown commercial since Dad’s IPO, who cause the real agita. The problem isn’t competing, which is obviously out of the question; it’s reciprocating.

“We would like to invite the parents of one of our daughter’s friends to dinner,” Ann confides. After all, the family has invited them several times – to the Bahamas. “We’re not really embarrassed about the apartment. But there are holes in the fabric of the couch. We can’t afford to get it reupholstered right now. I’m probably not giving them enough credit.”

At least Ann has a thriving psychology practice to distract her from her predicament. Her friend Wendy, a stay-at-home mom who grew up in a rambling Park Avenue apartment but now lives at a less-fashionable address on the fringes of the Upper East Side, appears to be doing somewhat less well. At one point, Wendy even started creating conspiracy theories about her daughter’s class.

“She felt the power structure of the class was divided along money lines,” Ann explains, meaning that those children who could afford to fly the whole class to Disney World for their birthday enjoyed greater popularity than those who could only afford a sleepover. “The heads of cliques, the kids in control, were backed by money. She felt the kids were getting personal power by how rich they felt they were.”

When I asked Wendy whether she was suggesting that the bull market had spawned a new and even more chilling phenomenon than Masters of the Universe – preteen Masters of the Universe – she confessed she may have been overreacting. She’d shared her fears with her daughter, who, in that unembellished way 12-year-olds have, assured her that she was out of her mind.

One of the class leaders did, indeed, come from a criminally wealthy family. But another one had followed a more traditional path to greatness – she just happened to be really cool.

“I decided it was my own paranoia and decided to revert to my own idealistic view of things,” Wendy says unconvincingly. An Ivy League-educated comp-lit scholar, she finds her advanced degree comes in handy these days mostly as a way to place what she describes as “a massive sense of vulnerability” in a historical and literary context. She sees parallels between herself and Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

“Lily was somebody who had exquisite taste but could no longer afford it,” Wendy explains, sitting in Sarabeth’s Kitchen on Madison Avenue on a recent morning, nibbling on a scone and staring out the window at passing well-heeled moms.

Wendy actually resembles a character from a Wharton novel. There’s the elegant John Singer Sargent profile, the impeccable manners, and, also, a subtle air of defeat. “She had better taste than the people who had the money,” Wendy says of Lily. “It’s hard to come out and say that, though. Taste and good manners aren’t necessarily consistent with the ruthless aggressiveness it takes to succeed in American society.”

It’s bad enough not to be rich in New York. What’s even worse is when people have no idea you once were. Wendy shared the fleeting humiliation she felt when she picked up her daughter at a Park Avenue birthday party and the birthday girl’s mother attempted to give Wendy a tutorial in the ways of the rich.

“She said, ‘The doorman will get you a cab,’ as if I didn’t know. What kind of clothes do I have on? I was the one who had to find out most buildings don’t have doormen.”

Things may not be quite as dire as Wendy makes them sound. Her husband’s a businessman, and while they can’t afford to live on Fifth Avenue, they recently combined their apartment with the one next door. If things really got desperate, Wendy could always emigrate to the West Side, as her younger brother Mark did.

“I bit the bullet and moved to 116th Street,” he says cheerfully. Then again, he’s a musician. He’s supposed to be living in genteel poverty. He didn’t even take it personally when his children’s head of school suggested he wait until kindergarten to send his youngest there, saying of the preschool, “That’s for rich people.”

“I told her she should move to the West Side, where there are millions of people like her,” Mark recalls. “Except now you can’t afford it anymore.”

There are even some displaced native East Siders who contend that parts of the West Side more closely resemble the Carnegie Hill of their youth – a quiet, unpretentious neighborhood filled with little-old-lady coffee shops and stores where the merchants knew every member of your family – than does the Rodeo Drive for the toddler set that Madison Avenue in the nineties has become.

“Now it’s where rich people can spend $300 for imported Italian Little Lord Fauntleroy blue shorts with the suspenders,” snorts Betsy, a costume designer who grew up at Park and 93rd and now lives in Washington Heights. “Who wears that stuff? Up here, everybody dresses in Patagonia. And I have a better super than I did on Park Avenue.”

Unfortunately, the West Side isn’t an island. One must occasionally return to the East Side, particularly if, despite proletariat leanings, a parent insists on sending his or her kids to a Dalton, Brearley, or Spence.

“I felt I had literally crossed the border from the West Side to the East Side,” confides a West Sider, referring to the scene at dismissal time at Diller-Quaile, the East 95th Street music school whose drum-whacking classes for 2-year-olds are considered by some to be essential preparation for admission to the Ivy League. “It’s the experience of standing in Diller-Quaile at two on a Wednesday in a pair of jeans and watching all these 92-pound trophy wives picking up their children in mink coats and stiletto heels,” she explains. “Where are they going? It’s a level of saturation in nail polish and hair color. And then I sit in the waiting room and hear these conversations – ‘We like the Filipinos.’ I feel like a stranger in my own country.”

Of course, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, not to mention Central Park West, are no longer the Wild West. Joanna Wolper, an independent TV producer, recalls a recent encounter with a Columbus Avenue florist when she was purchasing an azalea. “She said, ‘When you’re finished, you can plant it outside,’ ” Joanna remembers. “I’m thinking, ‘This is Manhattan. Where am I going to plant this?’ She said, ‘You’re not responding to what I said.’ She just assumed I had a country house.”

“It’s a little idealistic to think where junior sixes are going for $600,000 is the Left Bank,” observes one Riverside Drive writer. “When I go to visit my sister in Brooklyn, you still get the sloppy families looking really intelligent and cool. My spiritual home might be Park Slope.”

The real question, a philosophical question to which, frankly, there may be no right or wrong answer, is whether the new rich are truly more tacky than those whose places they’ve usurped on the social ladder. Is their lack of class and fixation on hair and makeup something truly unprecedented? Or is that just a story the middle class and the impoverished rich tell themselves to salvage their self-esteem?

Molly Ferrer, a real-estate broker in the Hamptons, Chapin School graduate, and the inspiration for Sally Fowler, the lead character in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, thinks they really are that tacky. “The trophy brides are the bane of my existence,” she says. “These people who didn’t have money last month and are climbing the social ladder are looking for somebody to have under their thumb.”

She recalls a recent client who seemed to regard Molly as occupying a position on her staff perhaps slightly above her handyman but certainly below her fitness trainer. “She did not get off the cell phone the entire appointment,” the real-estate agent complains. “She was not talking about her kid having a tonsillectomy but ‘Did you see that guy? Was he with a date?’ And their kids leave soda cans in the back of my car. It’s a disregard for basic manners.”

Their behavior improves only after they discover that while Molly can’t afford a $10 million house on the beach, which this woman was shopping for, her class and bloodlines still confer certain privileges. “I’m a member of the beach club out here,” she explains, adding that her clients hope she can help them get in, especially when they find out her brother’s on the board.

Rebecca, a lawyer, shares Molly’s contempt for the new overclass. She recently withdrew her daughter from her school, Rebecca’s own alma mater no less. It wasn’t the education she objected to. It was the social scene among her fellow moms at dismissal time.

“These people were awful,” she claims. “You can quote me by name. They wore all their jewelry to pick up their children. They had no manners, no class. Just a huge amount of money.

“The nannies are nice,” she continues. “Now I wonder whether I’ve slipped so far out of the middle class that I relate more to them than what would seem to be my peers.”

Not that she’s completely thrown in the towel. She’s discovered that her long legs still pass for currency of a sort. “It’s why I stay thin,” she confides. “It’s the one thing I’ve got. Sex is a great leveler. It’s class-free. It’s just DNA, and my DNA looks good. I like to have their husbands flirt with me and make their wives eat their liver.”

Handling one’s fall from social grace wouldn’t be so painful were it not for the children. Not because their soaring tuitions could be better spent reupholstering the couch, throwing dinner parties, and keeping up appearances. But because it’s hard to explain to a child why their classmates have so much more than they do and why you made the misguided, albeit idealistic, financially unrewarding career choices you did.

“She’s invited to all the same bar and bas mitzvahs as all the other kids, and she can’t buy the same presents and buy a new dress for every occasion,” Ann says. “She borrows clothes from the rich kids. Her friends are sympathetic to her like she’s got some serious handicap. She definitely feels left out that she’s not part of the dominant crowd.

“Some of these kids have regulations where they can wear their diamond necklaces,” she adds. “This is the kind of thing that’s being negotiated at their houses, as opposed to our home where we’re negotiating whether or not they need to buy new shorts at the Gap.”

“Our car embarrasses them,” Ann’s husband, David, says. “It’s a ten-year-old car we park on the street. They don’t want to give their friends rides out to the country.”

Wendy considers the Gap a godsend, about the only social equalizer she sees. “Everyone goes to the Gap,” she says cheerfully. “Even people who could afford to go anywhere go to the Gap.”

Unfortunately, it takes more than a new pair of khakis to make the average 12-year-old feel good about herself. “My older daughter was trying to figure out why people had more money and were they better – because she definitely likes us,” Wendy says. “I explained that Dad and I were interested in poetry and literature and pursued advanced degrees that weren’t lucrative. I don’t want the children to feel insecure. I want them to know you choose your life.”

Once upon a time, you could at least take solace in the notion that the best-paying jobs – those in banking, finance, and real estate – also seemed to be the most boring. But these days, the people making the big bucks also seem to be having the most fun.

“It can be a really lonely life devoting yourself to earning money,” Wendy says, then, realizing she’s just repeating her generation’s party line, amends her comments to reflect current reality: “I also know a lot of people who are happy with their incredibly lucrative jobs.”

What’s sad, though some would say it’s a sign of maturity, is that the sixties values on which they were raised during the sixties and seventies – a belief in the life of the mind, in public service, and that there are more important things than money – have been replaced by remorse.

Ann’s ailing mother may have put it best when she turned to David in the car one day and stated, apropos of nothing, “Money is life’s report card.”

“If you think of it in those terms, one can be pretty bitter living in New York,” David observed.

Betsy, the costume designer, says she doesn’t resent the family who bought her parents’ Park Avenue apartment, or their kid who came up to her at a Christmas party and told her that her old bedroom, which he inherited, “is the best room in the place.” Rather, she resents “the system that brought me up and didn’t discuss money.”

Wendy doesn’t wish she married for money – but she doesn’t deny she might have given the matter more thought. “There was a certain person who was interested in me, but nobody pushed anything,” she remembers. “I do sometimes think I could be a little more realistic.”

Ann continues to be proud of the choices she’s made – “My parents’ lives as rich people were emptier than mine,” she states flatly. “But I worry about whether my values can be well communicated to my children in this atmosphere.”

Part of the problem, apart from the ostentation all around them, is that Ann’s life might not look that appealing to a kid. In fact, she spends so much time struggling to support her family that she has no time to pursue the lofty goals of helping the poor that attracted her to psychology in the first place. Ironically, she spends her days servicing the rich, the only people who can afford her rates, while they do more actual good than she does, if only by attending charity galas.

“Because of my financial struggle, I have less time to exercise my social conscience than these rich people,” she admits. “I give less to charity and serve on fewer committees.”

Nonetheless, she says she’d feel like a failure if her kids chose their careers based on their earning potential. “I hope their educations will give them some financial stability, but my sixties values still predominate,” she insists. “I would love it if at least one of them was an artist.”

On the other hand, it wouldn’t kill her if one of the others joined Goldman, Sachs. “If they’re interested in banking – go for it,” she says, adding, not entirely facetiously, “and I hope they can marry the brother of one of their well-heeled school friends.”

But many in the next generation seem to have no desire to repeat the well-intentioned mistakes of the previous one. “Most of my students are extremely wealthy, and their ambition is to remain extremely wealthy,” David says. “They talk about how rich they are relative to each other. That’s all they think about. There’s not a thought given to public service.”

Class Struggle on Park Avenue